Insights into indie game development

I bought “Gremlins Inc.” in early access and only barely noticed its official launch. Even if I hadn’t noticed it, though, the amount of search hits for “Gremlins Inc. review” would have likely tipped me off. :p I did write a “first impressions” piece and for several days, this blog post was getting quite a lot more hits than usual.

But even if you don’t like this game (digital board games aren’t for everyone), if you’re interested in getting a glimpse behind the scenes of indie game development, this company’s posts are quite interesting! So Gremlins Inc. is made by Charlie Oscar, an indie developer located in Vilnius, Lithuania. What has impressed me a lot so far, other than the game itself (or I wouldn’t have bothered linking to it, obviously :p), is the amount of “behind the scenes” information they have given us.

Gremlins Inc.

For one, I thought it was cute – and understandable, but mostly cute – how they celebrated every milestone in copies sold. In fact, I had seen one of those posts right when I was wondering whether to get the game or not. It made the company look honest and sincere with their customers. It is also refreshing to see that they celebrated those “tiny” milestones when other big companies boast about their “1 million copies sold”. Yes, of course, I would wish for them to sell a lot of copies! Still, there are small companies out there and they are happy about every single sale they make.

A few days ago, I saw them tweet about their game’s localization efforts and found this a very interesting read! Not only for me as their customer, but maybe also for others who are interested in making games and for whom such insights are valuable pieces of information. It wasn’t very surprising to see them come to the conclusion that German and French localizations are a must have, basically. I am German, I know how bad the English of lots of other Germans is. :p But the sheer amount of languages they offer their game in is astonishing and their thoughts and the impact those localizations had is fascinating. They also describe the process of how they worked with translators in different regions.

Today, they added another post about sales and early access. I am not a game designer, but I still found it interesting to get a glimpse into that part of gaming. In short, they come to the conclusion – which fits to what others have already said apparently – that Steam’s Early Access does not fund a game, but it at least gives them some additional money they wouldn’t have otherwise and it lets them create a community already. From my point of view, I would agree. A lot of people are careful about Early Access games – or Kickstarter and the like – because you just don’t have a guarantee that the game will be finished any time soon or ever. I have bought several games in early access now, but I always asked myself first: “Will I have fun playing the game in its current state?” – Only if the answer is “yes”, I buy the game. And I know lots of other people just don’t enjoy a game that still changes or that comes with lots of bugs etc. So those very likely won’t buy such a game.

But back to this post: They also share some insight into costs related to the manpower, rent for the office etc. and that somebody needs to actually run the business or hire and work with lawyers on top of everybody trying to make the game.

So far, they have not turned a profit on the game, but it only released one month ago (on March 11, so yes, exactly one month ago) and I hope they will make quite a few more sales. I know I will buy the original soundtrack when it comes out, because I just love game soundtracks. Not sure about DLCs, though. I am much more picky when it comes to DLCs and their “worth” (thinking of the Tropico ones mostly here). But we’ll see… maybe, if they’re good.

The future of The Repopulation

Rather exciting news appeared while I was sleeping: The Repopulation will come back*! The developers (Above and Beyond Technologies) decided to leave the Hero Engine behind and port the game to the Unreal Engine.

Screenshot of the scenery in the new tutorial of The Repopulation

“This is not a decision that we have taken lightly. While many of our assets will convert over easily to Unreal Engine, the game’s code will need to be rewritten from scratch.”

Of course, this means the game will not get released any time soon. On the contrary, development will take quite a bit longer than we had anticipated. But that’s just how it is and I think overall, the decision may be for the better. With the Unreal Engine, they are no longer dependent on the Hero Cloud services. You can read more about their anticipated advantages of porting in the original article. For me, the most interesting bit is the “improved harvesting system”. Although they also said something about “graphical upgrades” and “eye candy”. I already thought the game was very pretty (see screenshot above), so I am very curious to see the what exactly will look better or different, at least.

Back in November when the problems first emerged, they started working on “Fragmented“, an online 1st person/3rd person shooter with RPG elements, as they now announced. I am not a huge fan of the shooter genre. There are two main reasons for this: for my personal taste, some of them focus too much on violence and on showing that violence (I highly praise Team Fortress 2 with its rubber duckies instead of blood, for example) and then there is my really bad motion sickness for anything with 1st person view. So, being able to play with 3rd person view is great news! The camera is still very close to the character, so I probably won’t be able to play it excessively. Not a bad thing either, though. ;) Healthy amounts of gaming time is much better for me anyway. However, this is a side project to help fund The Repopulation, to give us something to play while we wait and both games will share assets. Additionally, those of us who already own The Repopulation will get Fragmented for free!

“Players are expected to create their own goals in game though. This could include raising a stable of pets, building cities, killing, crafting, or competing with other humans for domination of the new planet.”

This is the part that really got me interested! Fragmented will not be about killing and violence and nothing else.  Instead, I can also help build a city or focus on crafting and pets. So far, I am not really sure how exactly this will work, but I guess I will see soon enough!

Altogether, I am very positive about what they have announced now and I hope they will succeed. My thumbs are pressed and I hope we will get to see Fragmented very soon (it sounds like parts will be available in February already) and the next alpha version of The Repopulation in a few months (I admit, I have no idea how long development would probably take in this case and how soon is realistic here).

*Follow this link to read what had happened and what had forced the developers to pause the current development. Massively also tried to summarize the situation back at that point.

First Impressions Review: Gremlins Inc.

(Update: They have added the “save last session” feature with their update on January 22, 2016)

Steam’s Winter Sale just finished and throughout it, you could gain Steam trading cards for looking at the “Explore” queue of the store. I like getting those cards to sell them. Hey, even a couple of cents are nice to have! Most of the time, I clicked through, not being interested in the games (“recommended because the game is on sale” – Oookay? – “Recommended, because this game is popular!” – So what?). But one game caught my attention. I admit, it was mostly because of the face of a gremlin. :p I added Gremlins Inc. to my wishlist, then forgot about it again until the last day of the sale. I then looked at a few videos and decided that I want this game. It’s still in Early Access and was 10 % off, which is a good deal in my opinion. I mean, it’s on sale and not even released yet!

I had also looked at the Steam reviews before buying the game. One negative review said that the game lacked strategy. So far, I think that’s not true at all. Of course, it’s not strategy like the Civilization games, but it’s exactly as you would play a board game. When I tried to get into the game and wandered aimlessly, I lost. As soon as I started to understand more and tried to follow a certain goal, I won a match! Maybe “tactical” would be a better term. There is also lots of luck involved and some cunning, as you can try to hinder the other players and be annoying to them.

(Update, January 22 2016: This paragraph does not apply anymore. They added the auto-save feature for the latest single-player game with today’s update!)  The (for me!) one big negative part about the game first, before I continue: It does not currently have the option to save a game. As games can last quite some time (e.g., about two hours), this, of course, is a problem. The developers said on the forums that it’s tricky or difficult to implement, but it is on their roadmap. I remember the developers of “Folk Tale” saying the same. Over time, the save feature got implemented and was buggy, while still being very limited (only one save game at a time). By now, it works as you would expect with several slots to save several games and no bugs left. So I assume (and hope ^^) that it will be like this here as well. Other than that, all basic features are in the game and I did not experience any bugs. The tutorial will be implemented later on. The text boxes explaining the game are doing an okay-enough job currently to get you started. I jumped into my first match after the short tutorial (only against AI, not against other players) and felt lost, until I saw that there are more text boxes popping up whenever something happened that needed an explanation. So, even without a “proper” tutorial campaign, the game does manage to explain its features to you.

Gremlins Inc.

As I said, it’s a board game. You play as a gremlin. As far as I could see, you cannot choose an avatar, unfortunately. Not that it matters. It’s just your player’s icon. Still, it would be nice. So, you’re a gremlin and the others (up to 5 players or AI) are gremlins as well. You can choose different victory conditions (e.g., get 20 or 30 “gears”, play a certain amount of rounds or a certain amount of time and the player with the most gears wins the game). The game itself consists of one board with several paths between “main buildings” like the dump or the casino. Every field of the path and the main buildings have a certain “feature” (e.g., paying your taxes or receiving income). Some of those get activated as soon as you pass that field, others are only activated when you step onto it and end your move there.

Gremlins Inc. The Casino

Your main goal is to get as many gears as you can (or as are needed for the victory). You have 6 cards and whenever you use one, you get a new one. The deck will be reshuffled once all cards were used by the players. Here’s the twist with the cards: You can either use them when standing on the board game fields (the lower left icon indicates which field you can use them on) or you use them for moving around the board (the upper left dice shows you the amount of fields you can move). I have often found myself out of options (well, good options anyway), because I wanted to save cards to exchange them for gears or other nice rewards, but at the same time, I was left with no good options to move around on the board. For example, passing a red field marked as “misfortune” will give you said “misfortune” which is a card (from a different deck than the regular 6 cards you have). It will always have negative consequences. Sometimes only for you, sometimes for all players. Stepping and ending your move on that field will let one random other player choose between two Misfortune cards. So, you can safely assume that out of those two, you will get the worse one. :p

Gremlins Inc Misfortunes

And with that, I already introduced you to the “annoy the players” part. The board itself already does a quite good job at it. For most cards that can give you gears, you will also need to spend a certain amount of money in order to play them on the appropriate fields. At the same time, the game’s fields and the “misfortunes” that happen along the way can cause you to lose quite a lot of money. I mentioned “rewards” for cards above. You don’t always get gears when you land on a special field and own a card for it. Sometimes, you also get a reward (e.g., money, votes which come in handy when the election for governor is happening, or other features) – or you get something mean to play on the other players! I think it is comparable to “Mensch ärgere dich nicht“, but with much better graphics. :p I regularly get send to jail by the other players, for example. In there, you roll a die to determine how long you’re going to stay there. It’s not like in Monopoly, where you can’t do much. In Gremlins Inc., you get to decide whether your behaviour will be good, neutral or bad. You also “level up” in jail by serving time in there and there is also a deck of cards which will give you certain events. You get one card per turn. For example, “get out of jail immediately” or “escape from jail”, but also “pay the bribe to get one less turn of jail time”. Some events are for good behaviour, some are for bad behaviour. If you chose neutral, you will get a card from either of those two. You can choose your behaviour at the start of each turn that you are in jail.

Gremlins_Inc Neutral Jail Event

I have not yet played against humans. I admit, I like the atmosphere much better if the enemies are computer-controlled. :p There are apparently ladders/rankings and even tournaments planned or going on. Additionally, something I really love: You cannot directly chat with the other players. You can send emotes and pre-made messages like “Oops!” or “Be right back!”. I’ve seen this in Hearthstone already and I think it worked well. Much less to worry about when it comes to harassment.

After the sales discount and the money I got for selling the trading cards, I spent 7,29 € on the game. It currently costs 9,99 € on Steam (GOG will come later, I think). Is the game worth the full price? It depends (yes, that’s always my answer… :p). Watch one or two matches on YouTube or so, and if you like what you see and if you think you can be happy even if the game never gets a save option, then I think yes, it’s definitely worth it. Otherwise, wait for a sale or wait for them to implement the save function first.

GOG Piñata – Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

GOG is currently having its “piñata sale” where you pay $3 (2,74 €) where you have no idea what kind of game you’re getting. They promise it will be anything worth between $9.99 – $44.99. You know how I am not much of a risk-taker, right? But somehow, curiosity got the better of me and I bought one. Of course, not without adding, removing, adding, removing the piñata several times before I chose to buy it. :p Bookahnerk did the same, by the way, without buying a game (yet?).

Anyway, what I got is “Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure“. I never heard that name before, even though Tex Murphy has been around since 1989. Point & click kind of games are not my favourite genre, but I do appreciate them once in a while! And when I saw a game description with the word “noir” in it, I was sold. Or rather, just incredibly glad that I probably did not just waste those 2,74 €. I really loved playing “LA Noire” especially because of the atmosphere in the game and the whole “go investigate something” plots.

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

Since I’ve only bought the game a couple of hours ago, I have not had the time to dig into it much yet. But what I’ve heard about the game and what I’ve seen in the game so far looks really good! The only downside is that it’s 1st person view. Not a fast variant, so I can play it for a bit, but I will have to be careful and not play too much in one single gaming session. Other than that, I should be fine. And gaming sessions should never be too long without a break anyway, right?

There is also a Reddit thread with people listing what games they got in their piñatas. From those I have seen, I think I got the one that interested me the most and this is what I like about promotions like these. It’s not too expensive, so I can do it once with no issues, and I may end up finding a game I wouldn’t have ever considered getting otherwise!

Valhalla Hills: First impressions

ValhallaHills-logoI’ve previously written about Valhalla Hills and my impressions from the outside, but now you can get an impression piece from me from the inside!

I was the lucky winner of the grand prize of Blaugust and received a Steam game that I could choose. While I have lots of games on my wishlist, only one came to my mind that I really wanted to have and play: Valhalla Hills (and I also got the Contributor Edition from Belghast and not just the regular one! O.o). The timing was also quite awesome, as all of this happened on my birthday. :D

TL;DR: It feels a lot like Cultures to me, but each map plays very similarly to the previous map which feels a bit repetitive. There is no sandbox either. Altogether, it has potential and I hope they can fill that potential with more content.

Now that this is out of the way, let me get into more detail. I mentioned in the previous post who Funatics are and why this game even caught my attention in the first place. So, I’ll skip that very basic introduction part and get right to the game.

You play as Leko, one of Odin’s sons, and need to earn honour (through building, fighting and so on) to prove to Odin that you’re a worthy son. You do so with the help of Vikings who get rejected from entering Asgard as well and who, just like you, need to earn more honour before they are allowed to enter. And with that, off to the adventure you go. The first few maps (all of them are islands) are really small. I am on map 9, I think (I would check, but Steam isn’t loading currently). In the beginning, you don’t have many buildings available yet. You basically build up an economy, so your vikings have food and soldiers. The goal is to go through the portal on the island. You can choose between two options: You either build an altar and gather resources to sacrifice for the portal guards to be calmed and let you through or you can instead invest in a small army of soldiers and attack the portal guards instead. I chose the peaceful option, simply because it seemed much easier. On later maps, there will be enemy NPCs on the islands, too, so you will have to have soldiers to defend your vikings anyway.

I said that you only have a few buildings in the beginning. You get unlocks in the game by playing the game which then give you access to more buildings later on. It’s important to note that the new buildings are not available on the island you are playing on at that time. Only when you start a new map can you build that new building.

One of the issues I see with the game currently is that it seems to be very repetitive. For the first few maps, all I did was build the most necessary buildings, build an altar, fulfill whatever was needed to calm down the portal guards and open the portal to get to the next map. There are even (Steam) achievements that support this “repetitive goal”: “Your Vikings managed to climb the Valhalla Hills x times!” where x is 10, 50, 100, 250. While I don’t mind having these achievements in general, I am not sure how much fun it will be to do the same thing over and over again with no change in between. In Cultures, there were story campaigns with maps that usually had at least slightly different goals to achieve (defeat your enemies on the map, gather enough of x resource, find NPC y and so on). And the single non-campaign maps also had different goals or no goals at all.

I finally reached a map that I could not succeed on. What I do find an interesting feature is that each map has a maximum of vikings you can get. Well, there are two numbers, actually. One is the maximum amount of vikings you can have at any given time. For example, after you build some huts for your vikings to live in, you can have up to 26 vikings on your island. When one dies, another one appears. But there won’t be more than 26 unless you buy another hut. But the maximum total amount is an important factor here. If you have 26 vikings and one died, this total is at 27 out of 55 vikings. If too many vikings die, no new ones will appear. So there is a definite end to the map if you let them starve or they die in fights with NPCs (those are the two ways they can die, I think). On top of that, the game lets you create three profiles which all have a different progression. But each profile only has one save slot and the game has an auto-save function. While auto-save is good, once you realize you made a wrong decision, you cannot go back. You can only start a new map (but as long as you continue playing with your current profile, all progress – that is, all unlocked buildings and your vikings honour – will be saved).

One thing I love is that you can rename your vikings and choose different helmets for them. The character screen is also quite cute and shows you how much honour each of your vikings has earned already and how often they spawned on your maps. This gives a nice little touch as you can get quite attached to them. What is sad is that within the game, you have no control over the vikings at all. For comparison, in Cultures you could tell each viking where to go. But more importantly, you had to assign a viking to a given job. The bakery was finished, freshly built, but nobody started working there unless you told somebody to do so. If you had more open professions then vikings, this was no issue as you assigned the available vikings to which professions you needed the most. In Valhalla Hills, I have to disable a building (no production there and thus, no viking working there), so no viking chooses this work place. But once I have more vikings, I have to be fast and enable it again before the viking goes to do another open job instead. There is no window that tells you which buildings are currently enabled or disabled, so you need to memorize which you set in the disabled state. Also, professions further down the skill line (that is, every profession but the very basic ones like farmer, hunter, forester) had to be learned somehow first in Cultures. A viking that had no prior experience (in the case of the baker, this would be a miller), he had to be sent to school to learn the appropriate profession there. But for me, the main aspect is that I could choose who should work at which place. Not even because I wanted to give my favourite vikings the best jobs in town (although I certainly did exactly that :p), but mostly because it just felt like I had more control over the game and it was much easier than the “micromanagement” in this game.

Oh, as this is early access, a word on why I am not writing about bugs: There were none. Seriously. Not one single bug. Okay, a few issues did arise… Sometimes, the game doesn’t load. Closing it in the task manager and restarting it solves the issue. And then some text is not fitting 100 % in its tooltip. I am also certain that some things need to be tweaked as I was frequently annoyed by vikings not finding food even though they are close to a building that stores food. But I’m not sure if that counts as a bug per se or rather something like “pathfinding issues” which to me, belongs to the “needs tweaking” category. :p

In closing, I could probably just repeat what I wrote in the “TL;DR” section above. I was pleasantly surprised as the game is much more fun than I thought it would be. But my concerns were also correct in that it has unused potential and does get a bit repetitive. In my opinion, they did a lot of things much better with Cultures and I hope to see some of those features return, so the game gets more depth and content and less repetitive gameplay.